Schengen Revision: The Backstory To Tightening Europe’s Borders

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 Mystery solved–of sorts. As noted in a recent Global Spin post on moves to revise the Schengen treaty, alterations now being suggested by European Union officials are curious in two ways. First, they don’t really create any new powers for Schengen member states to re-establish border controls in the face of urgent situations; the current treaty already allowed those to be imposed over 66 times in the past 16 years. Second, by explicitly permitting individual nations to temporarily re-introduce border checks in response to large influxes of illegal migrants into other Schengen countries, the proposals find Italian President Silvio Berlusconi scoring an own-goal in his diplomatic tussle the revision call arose from. Because as an outgrowth of France’s refusal to allow 25,000 Tunisians migrants to whom has Italy issued residence visas to cross the border per Schengen agreements, the new proposals will enshrine French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s argument that Italy’s glut of immigrant arrivals is Berlusconi’s problem to deal with.

“Sarkozy basically got Berlusconi to back a call for Schengen revision that’s nonsensical under Italy’s position the (disputed) Tunisians have the legal right to travel anywhere they want,” says a French diplomat who has followed the row. “Before Italy’s claim was that Paris had violated Schengen by blocking Tunisians seeking to travel from Italy to France. Now Berlusconi has co-authored a call for Schengen revision formalizing Sarkozy’s insistence that other countries—let’s say France–must be free to block large masses of migrants from leaving peripheral nations–let’s say Italy. It seems sort of curious, doesn’t it?”

Not too odd if you factor domestic politics into a series of Franco-Italian conflicts–of which the Tunisian migrants were only a component. Rome remains angry about the end-around France staged by unilaterally recognizing the Libyan opposition as that country’s legal representation, rather than wait for a collective EU stand to be adopted. Meanwhile, Sarkozy lobbied EU and NATO members into mounting the campaign of air strikes in Libya that Paris favored—a campaign Rome initially opposed, but was later forced to join to avoid being cut out of affairs in its former Libyan colony. At roughly the same time, finally, several large Italian companies were being bought or bid for by French groups—the most recent being French dairy giant Lactalis’ offer of nearly $5 billion to buy Parmalat. Those developments and others ignited criticism in Italy that the nation’s leaders were allowing foreign actors (especially France) to shape Italian interests at will–presenting Berlusconi with an obligation to react somehow.

“The problem is, even though public hostility to Sarkozy in France is so strong and personalized that almost anything he does gets automatically attacked and denounced, the scandal- and controversy-dogged Berlusconi is in an even worse position with his public,” the French official explains. “Berlusconi understood that no matter what he did on the Tunisians—whether he fought or folded—he’d come under heavy fire from Italian media and public opinion. Sarkozy understood that, too, and essentially convinced Berlusconi to back France’s position on Schengen and the migrant problem. In exchange he promised to sell it to the public as a brave and necessary reform they’d undertaken together, and would convince European partners to embrace. Sarkozy provides the spin that this is a joint effort attentive to both countries’ immediate interests,  and Berlusconi comes off looking better by backing a position Rome had originally denounced as the EU trying to stick Italy with a collective migration problem.”

That’s not to say, however, that looming Schengen reform—which European officials have now made the top item on the agenda for next month’s EU summit—will wind up being purely theatrics. Indeed, Berlusconi may wind up getting the last laugh with his short-term cave in terms of long-term migration help for Italy. The French diplomat predicts that significant collective financing and efforts will be pledged to help peripheral countries like Italy and Greece in their effort to turn back illegal migrants entering the EU’s via its most remote borders. The reason, he says, is that even EU societies and leaders that aren’t on the front line now accept Berlusconi’s basic claim that Italy’s Tunisians and other migrants are ultimately Europe’s problem.

“There’s a real understanding that the recent, high-profile inflows of migrants is only the beginning, and that serious, EU-wide steps must be made to control immigration as time goes on,” the diplomat says. “Countries farther north recognize migrants now entering from the south will eventually come their way. Countries like Poland—with the Ukraine right next door—also see they’ll face real challenges from the east in the future.”

Meaning, despite the head fakes to domestic politics, the efforts by Sarkozy and Berlusconi to throw up stronger and higher borders around Europe may have greater long-term consequences than initially suspected.